Beijing Opera is one of the many forms of the Chinese art and the most famous. Beijing Opera became more popular after a provincial troupe performed before Emperor Qianlong on his 80th birthday in 1790. The form was popularized in the west the actor Mei Lan-fang (who played “dan” - the female roles) and who even influenced, it is claimed, Charlie Chaplin.
The opera bears little resemblance to its European courtepart. It’s a mixture of singing, dancing, speaking, mine, acrobatics and dancing. Beijing Opera is traditionally the opera of the masses. In some ways it’s very similar to the ancient Greek theater, with its combination of singing, dialog, acrobatics and pantomime, the actors wearing masks and the performance accomplished by loud rhythms produced with percussion instruments. The theme are usually inspired by disaster, natural calamities, intrigues or rebellions, and many have their source in the Chinese history stories, fairy tales and myths and legends.
The music, singing and costumes are very much a product of the origins of the opera; formerly, Beijing opera was performed mostly on open-air stages in the markets and streets, in the teahouses or the courtyards of temples of Beijing. The orchestra had to play loud and the performance had to develop a piercing style of singing which could be heard over the throng. The costumes are a garish collection of sharply contrasting colors because the stages were originally lit by oil lamps.
The origins of Beijing opera may be traced as far back as the Tang Dynasty. The movements and techniques of the dance styles of the time are similar to those of today’s Beijing Opera. Provinceial opera teams were characterized by the dialect and style of singing of the regions where they originate, but when they brought together a style of musical drama called kunqu. This developed during the Ming Dynasty, with a more popular variety of play-acting with pieces based on legends, historical events and popular variety of play-acting with pieces based on legends, historical events and popular novels which had developed simultaneously. These styles gradually merged by the late 18th and early 19th centuries into the Beijing opera as we know it today.
The musicians usually sit on the stage, in plain clothes and play without written scores. The erhu is a two-stringed fiddle which is tuned to a low register, has a soft tone and generally supports the huqin another two-stringed fiddle tuned to a high register. The yueqin, a sort of moon-shaped fore-stringed guitar, has a soft tone and is used to support the erhu. Other instruments are the sheng (reed pipes), the pipa (lute), as well as drums, bells and cymbals. Last but not least is the ban, a time-clapper which virtually directs the band, beats time for the actors and gives them their cues.
There are four types of actor’s roles; the sheng, dan, jing and chou, and each is subvivided; the sheng are the leading male actors and they play scholars, officials, warriors, ect. They are divided into the laosheng who wear beards and represent old men and the xiaosheng who represent yongmen. The wensheng are the scholars and civil servants. The wusheng play soldiers and other fighters and because of this are specially trained in acrobatics. The dan are the female roles; the laodan are the elderly, dignified ladies – the mothers, ants and the widows. The qingyi are aristocratic ladies in elegant costumes. The huadan are the ladies’ maids, usually in brightly-colored costumes. The daomadan are the warrior women and the caidan are the female comedians. Traditionally, female roles were played by male actors. The jing are the painted-face roles, and they represent warriors, heroes, statesmen, adventurers and demons. The counterparts are the fu jing – ridiculous figures who are anything but heroic. Lastly, the chou are basically the clowns, often performing as servants or peasants. The caidan are sometimes the female counterparts of the male role.
Apart from the singing and music, the opera also uses acrobatics and mime. Few props are used so each move, gesture or facial expression is symbolic; a whip with silk tassels indicates an actor riding a horse, lifting a foot means going through a doorway. Language is often archaic Chinese, music is earsplitting, but the costumes and makeup are magnificent. The only action that really catches the western eye is a swift battle sequence – the women warrior involved are trained acrobats, who leap, twirl, twist and attack.
There are numerous other forms of opera apart from the Beijing variety. The Cantonese variety is more “music hall” often with “boy meets girl” themes. Gaojia opera is one of the five local opera forms from Fujian province and is also popular in Taiwan, with the singing based mainly on songs in the Fujian dialect but influenced by the Beijing opera style.